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The Deadly Snakes of Sri Lanka

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An unavoidable prelude to any journey is convincing my mother that the destination is safe and that I won’t suffer an agonizing death in a foreign land, far from those who love me. In this respect, Sri Lanka presented more of a challenge than usual.

Oh, did I pick and choose the statistics which I casually revealed to my mom! “Huh, would you look at that? Sri Lankans have one of longest average life-spans in Asia.” Or: “Wow! Who’d have thought that Sri Lanka’s literacy rate would be so high? Isn’t that amazing, Mom?” And: “It’s so nice that the Civil War is over and done with, completely, and there’s nothing more to worry about on that front, at all, since it’s finished now, and peace and love reign supreme in this magical place that I think I’ve heard some people call The World’s Very Most Safest Island.”

But my trickery was for naught. “Michael. Come over here.” Oh no, she’s opened up the internet! She’s gone straight to Google and keyed in Sri Lanka Danger Death. (Though it’s doomed me in this case, I remain silently proud of her web smarts). “Michael Ross Powell! It says here that Sri Lanka has the highest per capita rate of snakebite deaths in the world“.

Busted! Fine, mother, it’s true. In no other country are you more likely to drop dead of a snake bite than in Sri Lanka. It’s the world leader. Tropical, verdant Sri Lanka is a snake paradise; a fertile breeding ground of evil. 96 species of snakes have been recorded here, more than half endemic to the island. 32 of them are venomous, and twenty of these are deadly: seven land snakes and thirteen sea serpents.

Cobras are the most famous of Sri Lanka’s snakes. They’re found all over the island, except for a small zone in the highlands. This hooded killer is both feared and venerated here; statues of cobras are perhaps only second to Buddhas in places of worship. They’re also popular with snake charmers, who can be found hanging around any large tourist site. We had the chance to meet one during our time in Colombo (Mom, you may want to avert your eyes, now):

Scared of Cobras

The common krait is another of Sri Lanka’s deadly snakes. This fellow can grow over five feet in length and delivers a powerful neurotoxin that results in paralysis and eventual death by suffocation. They’re nocturnal, so encounters with humans are rare. But during the rainy season, they often seek evening shelter inside of a house and are a danger to sleepers. The bite isn’t very painful, akin to a mosquito or spider, so there’s a good chance that you wouldn’t even wake up. Until you’re choking on your own tongue.

The good news about the saw-scaled viper is that it’s mostly confined to the Jaffna peninsula. The bad news? We had ten days planned there!! Its toxin causes massive kidney failure and something called hematemesis (not sure what that is, maybe I should Wikipedia it… [reading] … oh god oh god oh god).

Cobras are perhaps the most terrifying, but they’re not the most deadly of Sri Lanka’s snakes. No, that distinction goes to the god awful Russell’s Viper. These large snakes are common in populated areas, where they hunt the rodents that live among humans. They’re mostly nocturnal and often found on roads at night. If bitten by one, you’re in trouble. They can deliver over 250mg of venom, and it takes only 40 to 70mg to kill a man. Nothing like making extra-sure, eh, you stupid snake? The bite will immediately swell up, and you’ll start bleeding. From your gums. In your urine. You’ll be in severe pain for up to two weeks, after which you might die of kidney failure.

The most important thing in the case of any snake bite is to immediately seek treatment. Even in the case of the Russell’s Viper, you’re very likely to survive if you get to a hospital right away. Sri Lankan clinics, predictably, are well-equipped to handle snake bites. Also, try and identify the type of snake which bit you, and you’ll save a lot of time once you arrive. Our plan (yes, we have a plan) is to take a picture of the snake, and then get to a hospital.

See mom? Nothing to worry about. Hospitals are prepared and we have a fail-proof survival plan! Now, log off Google and WebMD and YouTube, and relax. We’re as safe as can be.

Taiming Snakes
Sri Lankan Cobras
Cobra Hood
Cobra Bites
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March 23, 2012 at 12:14 pm Comments (13)

Sigiriya Rock – The Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World

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Nature’s awesome beauty and the ingenuity of mankind come together majestically at Sigiriya Rock. A massive 320-meter granite stone set incomprehensibly in the jungle, the “Lion Rock” was attracting admiration long before King Kassapa built his castle on top of it, and continues dropping jaws today.

Sigiriya

Sigiriya is probably the top touristic sight in all Sri Lanka, and for good reason. There is an incredible amount to see here, the history is fascinating, the ascent to the summit is an attraction in itself, and from the top, among the ruins of an ancient palace, the view over the surrounding jungle is unimpeded and breathtaking. A visit to Sigiriya is truly unforgettable.

Entrance-Sigiriya

And Sri Lanka knows it. The government charges $30 a head to enter the site. Unless, of course you’re Sri Lankan, in which case you’ll pay $0.40. We almost balked at the price. I understand charging locals less than tourists, but the scale of the difference is outrageous. Yes, foreigners might have more disposable income than Sri Lankans, but 75 times the price? The biggest slap in the face comes when you learn that Sigiriya is mostly funded by UNESCO and other foreign entities. So guess what? Foreigners are already paying for the maintenance and running of the site, and then they’re charged 75 times the normal entry fee. It’s insulting.

But Sri Lanka has a monopoly on the world’s supply of “Sigiriya Rocks”, so we swallowed our pride and bought tickets. I’m glad we did. Once we got done grumbling about the unfairness of it all, we had an incredible day.

Garden of Sigiriya

After crossing the moat to enter the grounds, you’re greeted by the marvelously restored 5th century pleasure gardens of King Kassapa. First, a Water Garden with an expansive and complicated set of pools and ponds, and further ahead the King’s Boulder Garden. Here, we saw the Cobra-Hooded Cave and talked with an archaeologist at work on a dig. His team was unearthing a cave temple, and he was more than happy to take a break to chat. Long before Kassapa’s arrival, Buddhist monks had considered Sigiriya a sacred place, and built temples around the base of the rock. Kassapa relocated the monks to nearby Pidurungala Rock, where they remain to this day.

We started our ascent up the Lion Rock at 7am in the morning, well before the sun was at full strength. This was a wise decision; we avoided both heat stroke and the eventual onslaught of tourists. We were able to climb unhurried and took our time admiring the scenery. By noon, bus after bus had pulled up to the gate. Already on our way back down, we watched a never-ending single-file line of sweaty, sun-beaten tourists with amazement and despondency. To be caught in the middle of that would have been a nightmare! I estimated about 200 people ascending the stairs at one time. I have no idea how many people visit Sigiriya daily but the government must be raking it in. So a word to the wise: go as early as you can. The gates open at 7, and you’ll have the rock largely to yourself.

Swalps-Sigiriya

Midway up, we encountered the Mirror Wall and the Hall of Maidens. The rock at the Mirror Wall had been polished smooth and flat and coated with a shiny plaster, so that the King could admire his reflection during his ascent. Facing the west, the wall must have shone brilliantly during sunset, and was perhaps meant as a sort of beacon, announcing the palace and the eminence of its king. Today, though, the luster is gone and it looks basically like a stone wall. Maybe a little flatter than normal. Much more impressive is the fresco gallery, found just above the Mirror Wall. The Damsels of Sigiriya are some of the most famous ancient paintings in the world, in a miraculous state of conservation.

After the Mirror Wall and damsel gallery, we emerged at a large terrace. We were exhausted and stunned to see that we had only completed about half our journey. Before us, two immense lion paws carved out of the rock indicated the beginning of the ascent’s second half. Under the pretense of admiring the lion, we took take a break before climbing up to the summit.

The Sigiriya Rock on our Sri Lanka Map
Sri Lanka Cook Books

Visit Sri Lanka
Water Garden Sigiriya
Sigiriya Garten
Bolder Garden
Sigiriya Entrance Tip
Going Uphill Sigiriya
Sigiriya Blog
Sigiriya-2012
Caves Sigiriya
Cobra Cave Sigiriya
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March 21, 2012 at 5:06 am Comments (7)
The Deadly Snakes of Sri Lanka An unavoidable prelude to any journey is convincing my mother that the destination is safe and that I won't suffer an agonizing death in a foreign land, far from those who love me. In this respect, Sri Lanka presented more of a challenge than usual.
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